Leading Britain's Condescension: James O'Brien boils over and Nicholas Witchell does free PR for Buckingham Palace

Sometimes, when the mask slips, we see the roiling rage beneath the media's pseudo-civil face.

Emperor Commodus was a weenie. He enjoyed killing helpless animals by the hundreds and playing at being a gladiator. In the arena, his opponents always surrendered, having been chosen to ensure they would, and on at least one occasion he had citizens of Rome, who were missing feet after accidents or illness taken to the arena and tethered together; he then clubbed them to death while pretending they were giants.

In the petty and prosaic arena of talk radio, LBC’s James O’Brien is a modern Commodus. Having evolved like a pugnacious Pokemon from a Daily Express gossip columnist into a sub-Jeremy Kyle host of televisual bear baiting and finally into his current form as a pseudo-centrist counterweight to Nick ‘Austin Allegro’ Ferrari, O’Brien needs an endless flow of tame callers who he can ‘own’ in viral video clips. Like Commodus, he wants to be the hero of the arena while ensuring that he never faces an opponent that might humiliate him.

His paper-thin ‘Mr Reasonable’ act, fleshed out by his books How to be Right… In A World Gone Wrong and How Not To Be Wrong… The Art of Changing Your Mind, is so galling because it is transparently just that — an act. On Thursday, a moment on his show — clipped and posted to social media by the station — showed what happens when O’Brien encounters a caller he can’t easily pin and whose view he cannot bring himself to pretend to respect:

Caller: I listened to his speech, and really tried to make to keep myself listening to it because it was so dull…

O’Brien: (sighs loudly)

Caller: … but the points he made could have…

O’Brien: … dull in delivery or?

Caller: Well, yes, but that could have been a speech made by Jeremy Corbyn with sincerity…

O’Brien: Oh here we go.

Caller: There’s no sincerity in it; it was just what he thought people wanted to hear.

O’Brien: Right. Okay.

Caller: There was no sincerity at all. Now I’m a lifelong socialist and I wouldn’t vote for him…

O’Brien: Yeah, no kidding. Well, there’s a surprise, Ian.

Caller: Oh, really?

O’Brien: Yeah, I bet you had a really open mind before he started speaking. Sarcasm emoji.

Caller: /all he’s done is attack members of the Labour Party, former Corbynites…

O’Brien: Yeah, alright mate, have a great day, let’s keep on fighting among each other, Ian. Cause that’ll really stick it to the Tories. AM I RIGHT OR AM I RIGHT, BROTHER?

Caller: That’s what he’s been doing.

O’Brien: COME ON ON COMRADE! LET’S KEEP FIGHTING. LET’S GO AFTER HIM BECAUSE THAT’LL REALLY TEACH BORIS JOHNSON A LESSON. COME ON COMRADE IAN, TELL ME AGAIN HOW AWFUL KEIR STARMER IS…

Caller: Well, he could have pulled up the government on points without being opportunistic…

O’Brien: Right. An example of that?

Caller: Well, an example is with the terrible treatment of businesses who were stiffed by insurers over business insurance.

O’Brien: And how can he, with four years until he gets into government, use that as political leverage?

Caller: He could have publicised it/He could be standing up for the public transport workers.

O’Brien: How do you know about it? How do you know about it?

Caller: How do I know about it? Because I’ve been following the story in the financial press.

O’Brien: So it’s been publicised.

Caller: Not… he hasn’t stood up and championed the small guy/ against the big guy has he, which is socialism…

O’Brien: YEAH, DOWN WITH LABOUR, SAYS OUR POCKET SOCIALIST IAN, SHALL WE DO A QUICK CHORUS OF THE ‘RED FLAG’ BEFORE YOU JOG ON…

What you don’t get from my transcript which you will see if you watch the video is that while the caller never raises his voice, O’Brien gets increasingly angry and beetroot-faced, literally screaming at various points. Once he heard his Manchurian Candidate trigger words (“Corbyn” and “socialism”), his kill switch was engaged. What he wasn’t expecting was that the caller, Ian, would have a response to his demand for an example.

O’Brien was clearly expecting the caller to crumble, primed by his call handlers who usually ensure that no one tricky makes their way on air. The fragile lie that LBC believes in ‘conversation’ and ‘debate’ was shattered entirely as O’Brien ranted and raved at the caller. There is, in fact, only a very narrow range of opinions that are acceptable to O’Brien and his real answer to “How to be right” is to control every parameter of the conversation and have a mute button to smash when you’ve had enough of listening to someone else.

O’Brien is like a journeyman boxer whose promoter ensures he only ever faces hobbled opponents. It’s the tactic beloved of talk radio hosts the world over. They own the ring, they set the terms of combat, and where necessary they cheat. Having been shown up as a glass-jawed grunter, O’Brien spent Fridays show referring frequently to the fact he was trending on Twitter and being trolled by terrible leftists, corn-cobbing himself so thoroughly that you could almost hear the Jolly Green Giant stomping towards the studio to harvest him.

No matter how often O’Brien treats callers with bullying disdain, he will continue to be treated as a voice of reason and gifted gentle broadsheet coverage the next time he tosses out another book. Another moment of unconcealed media rage that occurred yesterday reveals why…

Nicholas Witchell — who was expensively educated at public school… just like O’Brien — has been the BBC’s Royal Correspondent for almost 23 years. Even when he did actual reporting he was a suspect figure.

Witchell joined the BBC in 1976, after an early career writing about the Loch Ness Monster, and by 1984 was chosen to be one of the first newsreaders on the Six O’Clock News when it launched, alongside Sue Lawley.

In 1988, when the programme’s studio was invaded by women protesting against Section 28 (the notorious law which prevented councils and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality), Witchell grappled with protestors leading to The Daily Mirror headline BEEB MAN SITS ON LESBIAN.

During the 1989 journalists’ strike, Witchell turned up to work, crossed the picket line, and was justifiably called a scab.

As Royal Correspondent, Witchell has gained a reputation for being so utterly oleaginous that it’s surprising he doesn’t slide right off his chair. And yet, the Royal Family who he speaks of so fawningly despise him. It all goes back to 2002, just four years into his stint as Royal Correspondent when his obituary of Princess Margaret mentioned her lovers and “copious consumption” of whisky. He should have realised that the Royals expect obedience, not facts.

In 2005, ‘The Family’ publicly showed how little they think of Witchell. During a press conference at the Swiss ski resort Klosters, beloved of the Royals, Witchell asked Prince Charles how he and his sons were feeling about his forthcoming nuptials. The Prince of Wales caught on a hot mic, muttered under his breath:

“These bloody people… I can’t bear that man. I mean, he’s so awful.
He really is.”

It was the first correct thing that Prince Charles has said in decades, arguably ever. But, of course, the BBC was required to ride to Witchell’s defence and called him, “…one of our finest.” That suggests the ‘finest’ is a very low bar for the put-upon people in the BBC press office.

Yesterday — February 19th 2021 — showed that Witchell is still trying to win the approval of the Royals. Reporting on the news that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex will not be returning to roles as ‘working royals’ (one of the biggest oxymorons in British public discourse) and would be stripped of various patronages, he analysed their statements and those from the Royals. He interpreted the Queen’s statement like this:

“There’s almost an unspoken sentence, which doesn’t appear in the statement after that, ‘A life of public service like I have led, like my husband has led, at the age of nearly 100, like the rest of your family continue to lead, but which you have decided to opt out of.’

He then pulled the same act with the Sussexes’ statement:

“And then the Sussex’ statement, which concludes with these couple of phrases, ‘We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.’… Isn’t there a sense there of thumbing their noses? … Don’t tell us how to lead our lives.”

Witchell’s rage-drenched analysis, the establishment’s anger at anyone doing something other than what they ‘expect’ bubbling up from beneath the surface, is replicated across the tabloid front pages today. It’s best exemplified by The Daily Mail’s shrieking headline HAVE THEY NO RESPECT?

And that’s where the rage in O’Brien’s attack on his caller and Witchell’s overreaching analysis come from — a demand for respect.

O’Brien, Witchell, and anyone in the British media who has a platform that feels unassailable will inevitably claim that they value “debate” and “conversation” but kick into self-defence mode the minute they encounter an opinion outside their comfort zone and the range of actions that are ‘acceptable’.

While the right rants and raves about the culture war it has constructed (see yesterday’s newsletter), someone expressing remotely left-wing views will be shouted down on the radio and the BBC broadcast barely concealed tabloid lines. Who exactly is winning the war and who is being silenced?

Share